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Skin Cancer Danger: Not Just in Summer

Snow on the ground doesn't mean you don't have to worry about sun exposure. Sunburns -- and skin cancer -- can happen even in winter months.

The Skinny of Vulnerability continued...

Here are some of the reasons why Australians are so vulnerable to the disease and how the same hazards could affect Americans and Europeans:

'Who's the fairest of them all?' Most Australians migrated from Northern European territories. "We're basically a pale-skin population living in a dark-skinned people's land," Slevin explains. "We've been here for only a little over 200 years and our skin hasn't adapted to the ultraviolet radiation that we're exposed to."

Slevin says the growth of international travel by Americans and Europeans to warm, sunny lands during the fall and winter months has also increased their amount of UV exposure.

Skin is in. In Australia, the U.S., and Europe, exposure to the sun has apparently increased with a strong cultural desire for light-skinned people to get a tan and with a change in dress since the early 20th century.

"People used to shun the sun with their hats and parasols," says Martin Weinstock, MD, PhD, chairman of the skin cancer advisory group for the American Cancer Society. Now, showing bare midriffs and more leg, even outside the beach, is acceptable in many parts of the western world.

Fun in the sun. If it's sunny out, people in Australia tend to go to the beach and play, says Kendra Sundquist, PhD, spokeswoman for The Cancer Council New South Wales. The same could certainly be said of people in other parts of the globe. With a host of outdoor activities from surfing to in-line skating to gardening, there are plenty of reasons for people to venture outside on nice days.

Unfortunately for people down under, Australia is situated in an area of the planet that is closest to the sun in summertime, which means more intense UV exposure.

Exposure to the sun's harmful rays isn't limited to one area of the world, however. Each country's UV levels vary in different seasons, depending on their geography. And in a large place like the United States, the variables are even greater. The UV levels in Florida, for example, are different from those in Maine, explains Weinstock.

In addition, UV radiation doesn't necessarily depend on temperature or season, as more people get sunburned in Australia in the cooler days of fall and spring, says Craig Sinclair, chairman of The Cancer Council Australia's skin cancer committee. It is reportedly likely that UV light can cause more damage at this time because people don't normally think of sun protection during the fall and winter.

Again, this is not purely an Aussie phenomenon. Sinclair notes that worldwide, UV radiation goes up 3% for every 400 meters (about 1,312 feet) of altitude. Plus, UV light is reflected from snow (about 80%), and from clouds on overcast days. This could mean a double dose of exposure.

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